October 24, 2020 

Everything you need to know about the MEAC

A 16-game slate, two new coaches and much more

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Maryland Eastern Shore forward Taylor Clayborne takes a free throw at North Carolina A&T on Feb. 11, 2019. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference announced Thursday its plans to play a 16-game conference slate for the upcoming 2020-21 season.

Within that 16-game schedule, though, teams in the conference — which is populated by HBCUs along the east coast — will be restricted to divisional play. The northern division will include Coppin State, Delaware State, Howard, Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State and Norfolk State, while the southern division will feature Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central and South Carolina State.

Teams in the northern division will face each other three or four times in the regular season, while teams in the southern division will face each other four times. The schedule begins on Jan. 2.

At no point in the regular season will there be any cross-divisional play. Norfolk State will not play at Florida A&M, for example, unless they meet in the MEAC Tournament, which is still set for March 8-13 at Norfolk’s Scope Arena.

The schedule was created this way to cut down on travel. MEAC Commissioner Dennis E. Thomas said that this schedule will not require any commercial or charter flights. The longest trip in this set-up is the drive between NC Central in Durham, North Carolina to Florida A&M in Tallahassee, Florida, which is about nine hours.

“We know, at some point in time, there are going to disruptions,” Thomas said during a Zoom call Thursday morning. “We feel very good that everyone will be safe to play our seasons. But we must understand that we are in unprecedented times and we are going to have to make adjustments along the way.”

Thomas said that whether or not fans will be allowed at games will be “an institutional decision,” left up to individual schools, based on state and local guidelines.

This basketball season for the MEAC is a special one as the conference celebrates its 50th anniversary.

As the conference grows older, its membership is also changing. In the 2017-18 school year, the conference had 13 members. Then Hampton left for the Big South and Savannah State dropped to Division II, becoming a member of the CIAA. And this season will be the last for Bethune-Cookman, FAMU and N.C. A&T. The two Florida schools are joining the SWAC and the Aggies are moving to the Big South for the 2021-22 season.

The favorite

Bethune-Cookman could take home a championship in its final season as a member of the conference. The Wildcats were voted to repeat as southern division champions in the conference’s preseason poll, which was voted on by the league’s coaches and sports information directors. A year ago, Bethune-Cookman won the MEAC’s regular season title with 23-6 overall record and a 15-1 mark in league play.

However, the Wildcats fell in their first game of the MEAC tournament, losing 61-55 to a scrappy Maryland Eastern Shore squad. The game happened just a day before the NCAA tournament was canceled.

“It was a bad game that we had. No one wanted to go out that way,” Bethune-Cookman head coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis said. “But at that time… it was about just getting these girls to safety and with their families.”

Were it not for the coronavirus, Bethune-Cookman still would’ve went to the WNIT last year, which would’ve been its fifth straight postseason appearance. The Wildcats will have a good chance to play in the postseason again this year, as they are armed with MEAC preseason Player of the Year Amaya Scott, and preseason All-MEAC First Team selection Daniella Hatcher. Scott, a 6’1 native of Sunrise, Florida, led the MEAC in field goal percentage last season with a 52.5% mark. She averaged 12.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per-game, which were both top 10 in the conference.

“It’s been a progression. It didn’t happen overnight,” Blair-Lewis said. “The standard is for us to play at a certain level every single night.”

Still the underdog

Maryland Eastern Shore head coach Fred Batchelor enters his 17th season on the job in Princess Anne. In this photo from January 2018, he talks to his team during a timeout at Savannah State. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

For Maryland Eastern Shore, the way last season ended was a disappointment, but not because of anything that happened on the court. Fred Batchelor’s side won its last five games of the season and were set to play in the MEAC tournament semifinals — for the second straight year — before it was scrapped due to the coronavirus.

The Hawks return their top two scorers in Brooklyn Bailey and Amanda Carney, the latter of which was also the team’s leading rebounder. Carney — a 5’9 product of Old Bridge, New Jersey — is also chasing down program records for three-point shooting.

Despite their excellent finish last season, fellow league coaches weren’t high on the Hawks in the preseason poll, picking them fifth. Norfolk State was tabbed as the favorite to win the northern division.

“I did notice that we were picked fifth out of sixth in the north. We return four starters. So, if I was looking for some motivation this year, I think the league might’ve kind of lit a fire,” said Batchelor, the league’s longest-tenured head coach. “It’s going to be nice to kind of pick up where we left off.”

Maryland Eastern Shore is also gaining back a talented player in Mahogany Lester, who was injured in the first game of last season. The redshirt freshman is the 6’1 daughter of former Naismith Player of the Year, Maryland’s Joe Smith.

“(Lester) is a tough kid. I think she’s going to be a big-time player for us,” Batchelor said. “I think she’s a kid that’s going to elevate our level of competition, our toughness and Lord willing, she’ll be good to go come January.”

New coaches at FAMU, Coppin

While it’s Florida A&M’s last year in the conference, it’s the first season on the job for Shalon Pillow, the rookie head coach for the Rattlers. Pillow is accustomed to winning, having been a player on teams at Tennessee that captured four SEC titles and appeared in two Final Fours. Pillow went on to be an assistant coach at Hofstra, USF, MTSU and Kentucky, where she guided teams to three Elite Eight appearances, brought in five top 20 recruiting classes and molded multiple WNBA Draft picks.

Turning things around at FAMU won’t be easy, though. The Rattlers went 6-21 last season and haven’t appeared in a postseason tournament since 1999.

“I’m always up for a challenge. I’ve been an assistant for 15 years and I really thought that I had some assets that I could bring to Florida A&M, to help build up the program and make it successful,” Pillow said. “I thought it was a really good opportunity. What better time to just hop in and have my program and create?”

The other newcomer to the conference is Laura Harper, who takes over a Coppin State program that finished 3-26 last season and hasn’t been to the postseason since 2008. Harper comes to the Baltimore university after being the head coach at Florida’s Montverde Academy. She has also been an assistant at Florida, George Washington, High Point and Loyola (Maryland).

Harper was a star for the Maryland Terrapins and had her No. 15 jersey retired after helping them win a national championship in 2006. She scored more than 1,400 points as a Terp and will try to install the winning mentality she learned from Brenda Frese into the Eagles.

“For me, I think you have know what it feels like to win, what it looks like to win, what it sounds like, before you can actually instill those kind of principles into your team,” Harper said. “You have to believe you can win.”

Non-conference questions remain

N.C. A&T forward Deja Winters defends N.C. State’s Jakia Brown Turner on Nov. 6, 2019 at Reynolds Coliseum. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

While the conference slate is set for the MEAC, questions remain for how teams will approach a non-conference schedule. Some teams are aiming to play a full non-conference agenda, some are hoping to play a handful, and then there’s Maryland Eastern Shore, which is skipping the non-conference calendar all together.

“Right now, we will not be having a non-conference schedule,” Batchelor said. “We decided early on — back, really early… Our administration made the decision based on policies, procedures, things that were going on. The fact that we’re in Maryland, which has much stricter guidelines with a lot of things you can do here, as far going to other states.

“As the numbers increase, it looks like it was the right thing to do. It puts us back a little bit, but the fact that our kids are going to get the year back, it doesn’t hurt us as much. We’re excited about getting into conference play.”

At Delaware State, where David Caputo’s squad is coming off its best season in more than a decade, the Hornets are hopeful to play several non-conference contests. But Dover — like the Hawks down Route 13 in Princess Anne — is a bit isolated on the college basketball map and there aren’t many schools that are a hop-skip-and-a-jump away.

Still, the Hornets will open their season at home on Dec. 2 against in-state rival Delaware of the CAA, Caputo said. And it’s possible that Delaware and Del. State could play a home-and-home series this year to help each other fill their schedules.

“We do have a handful of games right now that we’re going to play. We are working daily, because things do change. Protocols change, state to state guidelines change,” Caputo said. “Just throughout the entire landscape of Division I, the scheduling process has been challenging and is constantly changing… We are going to have a non-conference schedule. It might not be as many games as it was originally.”

Delaware State returns seniors Sharajah Collins and Lyric Turner, both of whom landed on the preseason All-MEAC team. The Hornets have also added transfers from Tennessee State, Memphis, CSU Bakersfield and Ole Miss.

“We feel like we have a good nucleus back,” Caputo said. “And we feel like the additions will fill some voids where we were lacking. We’re excited.”

SC State head coach Audra Smith said that her Bulldogs are hoping to play nine non-conference games, and currently have agreements with Mercer, Winthrop, Coastal Carolina, Western Carolina and UNC, all of which would be bus trips for the university in Orangeburg.

While non-conference games can be difficult to schedule this year amidst the pandemic, they’ll be important to teams like Del. State as they try to build chemistry ahead of the MEAC slate. For a first-year coach like Pillow at FAMU — who will play Alabama A&M at some point during the non-conference season — games played outside of the MEAC schedule will help her get more familiar with her squad.

“We’ll probably play as early as Nov. 25,” Pillow said. “I’m excited about that. The more game experience we can get, the better for us. A new philosophy, new expectations — I would just really like to see them on the court in a competitive capacity.”

Written by Mitchell Northam

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